The Blue Jays got another strong start from Francisco Liriano, who has excelled since arriving in Toronto at last year’s trade deadline. While Russell Martin should get plenty of credit for guiding the Jays’ staff, pitching coach Pete Walker doesn’t get enough credit for what he does.
The Blue Jays starters have looked strong during the Grapefruit League schedule, including another 3 inning “gem” from Francisco Liriano on Thursday. Liriano threw 3 scoreless innings, allowing a single walk and striking out 5 batters. He looks like he’s pretty much ready to go, as do a couple other Blue Jays starters.
Marcus Stroman has looked strong when he’s taken the hill, as have plenty of others such as presumed ace, Aaron Sanchez. The dominant starting staff will look to continue the positive momentum into the regular season, and hopefully perform at or near the level they did in 2016, which was pretty damn good.
The Blue Jays have quietly enjoyed some of the best pitching in baseball, especially last season when their rotation had the best collective ERA among AL staffs. The combination of Sanchez, Stroman, Marco Estrada, J.A. Happ, R.A. Dickey, and eventually Liriano, wasn’t always flashy, but they consistently got the job done.
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Stroman and Sanchez both came through the Blue Jays system, but the other 3 current starters have arrived via trade or free agency. Since joining the Blue Jays, Estrada has thrived as a starter, turning his profile from an expendable long-man into an All-Star starting pitcher. If the Blue Jays can’t extend him before the end of the season, he’ll be a coveted free agent.
In Liriano and Happ’s case, they both came to Toronto by way of Pittsburgh, home of pitching guru, Ray Searage. While Searage gets celebrated for his work turning struggling veterans around (and he should), the Blue Jays have an excellent pitching coach of their own in Pete Walker. While I won’t suggest Walker should be held in the same regard as Searage, I don’t feel he gets the attention he deserves.
Walker was appointed as the bullpen coach on Nov 7, 2011, and was promoted to pitching coach on Nov. 24, 2012, a position he’s held since. While the Blue Jays pitching staff was a weakness for many years, these days they have a coveted staff, which lead the team to the playoffs in 2016.
Beyond the starting staff, the Blue Jays quietly put together a solid bullpen last year as well. Roberto Osuna dominated as the closer again, and the Jays’ were able to get a “second wind” out of trade acquisitions Jason Grilli, and Joaquin Benoit. Rule 5 pick Joe Biagini became a crucial contributor as well, and Brett Cecil eventually found his groove and filled the need for a late-inning lefty.
At the beginning of the season, Grilli and Benoit were arguably near being forced into retirement, and both were basically given to the Blue Jays in trades last year. I’m not suggesting Walker waved a magic wand that turned back the clock for the veterans, but they clearly found some sort of adjustment that helped their performances after arriving north of the border. Grilli had a 5.29 ERA with Atlanta and a 3.64 ERA in Toronto, while Benoit went from 5.18 in Seattle to 0.38 (!) after the trade. Benoit made 25 appearances for the Jays as well, so that wasn’t a small sample size, and Grilli’s ERA shot up after a couple tough outings at the end of September.
We could put together a list of pitchers who have struggled after arriving in Toronto as well, so I’m not suggesting Walker is perfect, I just don’t think he gets his due nearly as often as he should. Combining his work with the veteran guidance from Russell Martin, and of course the talent from the pitchers, and the Blue Jays have found a working formula.
Hopefully they can continue to stay healthy as they did last season, and Walker and his staff can remain one of baseball’s best. If they can produce even close to how they did last year, the Blue Jays should be a strong candidate to return to the postseason, for a 3rd straight campaign.